Kaija Saariaho: the Finnish composer who lets others play with her work

The composer’s attitude to combining her ballet, which is coming to Dublin, with a video she hasn’t seen was ‘why not?’

Kaija Saariaho: ‘We started to work on the number seven. I have seven musicians. The piece has seven parts’

Kaija Saariaho: ‘We started to work on the number seven. I have seven musicians. The piece has seven parts’

Fri, Nov 8, 2013, 01:00

Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho’s ballet Maa gets its Irish premiere tomorrow courtesy of the electro-acoustic performance group Dublin Sound Lab. Maa won’t be presented as a ballet, but instead with a new video by Ailbhe Ní Bhriain, as Mirrors of Earth.

Don’t think of the project as a conventional collaboration, because it’s not. Saariaho is quite happy to lend the extraordinary alluring textures of her work to other art forms.

The 90-minute Maa was first performed by the Finnish National Ballet in 1991. Saariaho and choreographer Carolyn Carlson agreed to create an abstract work.

“At that time,” says Saariaho, “I was working a lot – and in a way I still am – with the idea of metamorphosis. So it became the thematic thing: crossing the space, opening the door, two sides of the windows, different spaces.

“We started to work on the number seven. I often work with numbers, and anyway we have numbers in time, so it’s quite natural for me.

“For Carolyn it seemed to be much more important still. In the beginning it was supposed to have seven dancers, and so on. Well, I took this number seven very seriously. I have seven musicians. The piece has seven parts. Every part of these seven has seven sub-parts. I developed seven different kind of materials, which then are used in seven different ways. For me it was a kind of mind game. We need strategies to restrict our material, so that was the starting point for this piece.”

The actual music was begun in the countryside, where Saariaho recorded material for the electronic part of the score. “The heart of the work is this piece for violin and electronics. I wrote it at the country house, and I felt that the atmosphere I had writing that piece somehow came to the whole work.”


A slow worker
Saariaho describes herself as a slow worker, who maps out her structures in advance, never interferes with orchestration once she has made decisions – and the use of electronics is as much part of that decision as the inclusion or exclusion of a saxophone. This limited the extent to which she could fully collaborate with a choreographer who worked “through improvisation with the body”. If the dance needed an extra five minutes, it simply wasn’t forthcoming. “I had carefully realised the big puzzle,” and adding or removing sections “would have broken it, musically”.

“When we had the first performance, I had no idea what Carolyn would be doing. She did what she did and she didn’t really ask my opinions. At the time I felt that I would have liked it to be still more abstract. But what did I imagine? I’m not sure.

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